My daughter is starting school in September. I think I’m more excited than she is. The Marks & Spencer 20% sale was announced, and I had all the items I wanted in my e-basket ready the night before - rookie excitement at its best! More experienced mums have told me to buy labels, and to label everything from coats to pencils, otherwise it all goes missing - cue awkward playground conversations at collection time.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about labels, as it’s something that comes up in coaching conversations all the time. The “that’s just how I am” observation; the “I was never the confident one” comment. It is remarkable how character traits get assigned to children so early in life and they can really stick with them. A client mentioned to me that there was a standing joke in her family that she was an accident. While her family may have meant it as a joke, for her it was very real and she spent an inordinate amount of time trying to prove her worth, which was unduly colouring her decisions well into adulthood. Another client struggled with her weight as a teenager and, despite being very slim for years, she had labelled herself as ‘fat’ and, again, this really shaped how she made decisions in many seemingly unrelated aspects of her life.
As a parent, I see the influence of labelling already. I overheard my four-year-old on a playdate being told by her pal that she was shy. And the thing is, she is shy - I just don’t want her to see herself as shy. Because she is four, and maybe when she is five she’ll decide she’s not shy anymore - like my very gorgeous niece who, at seven years old, told her mum, “I’m done being shy”! I want my daughter to know that she can change. She can be whoever she wants, be that shy or otherwise. Labelling doesn’t help.
I love words. My dad was a journalist, and I guess the power of words was always around me growing up. But don’t underestimate the impact your language has. Try to hear how you describe yourself or, indeed, how you describe your children. What phrases you often use? “I’m a real worrier”, “I’m the peacemaker”, “Alison isn’t great at maths” - it’s so easy to play the same record over and over again, until these words become part of your identity. And what that means is you subconsciously live up to them. So you always worry, even when there isn’t much to worry about; or you always put yourself into the role of peacemaker, even when that causes you stress; or Alison never believes in her potential enough to let herself get better at maths.
There is great value in challenging our labels about how we perceive ourselves to see if they still hold true. Are they a real reflection of who you are today, or even who you want to be? Or are they an unwanted legacy from childhood or teenage years, or even from early in your career? One of the values of coaching comes from wading through these labels and deciding if you would like to peel them off.
So, for this month, I invite you to think about the labels in your life. How are you labelling yourself or your child? Do these labels hold true and if not, how else might you see yourself?